It’s been a good few years for animation (unless you work for Pixar), and each new feature brings new styles and looks to the medium. Each studio, besides Disney, struggles to get its foothold in the doors of animation history, not by exploiting pop culture jokes or trying to make it have a wide appeal, but by telling great stories that are timeless. This effort from 20th Century Fox and Reel FX does just that.
Let’s take a look at The Book of Life.
The story begins with the standard throw-away framing device where a class goes into a museum and are shown the titular Book of Life, where the guide tells the story of Manolo (Diego Luna), Joaquin (Channing Tatum), and Maria (Zoe Saldana). And yes, this movie is about a love triangle, which is totally not an overused and boring cliche at this point, at all. What makes this film worthwhile, however, is the insane lengths that these characters go to protect and care for each other. That, and the kick ass after life and bargains between supernatural deities, of course.
What I think is the most interesting about the style of the film is that the characters within the story that are not supernatural do have texture and metallic hinges throughout the film, making it feel like a puppet show and giving the whole film a new feel and look than the typical smoothly rendered character. The colors are bright without being harsh, and the environments and backgrounds are incredibly detailed. The worlds of the dead are some of my favorite set pieces, since they carry a huge sense of scale and movement. It’s a visual experience that has to been seen to be truly appreciated, and one that has helped separate this film from the pack.
The pacing of the story itself is great, even though the run time is the standard 90 minutes, which is just a reminder that you can still make a good movie in less than three hours. The cute little kid section in the beginning might seem totally unnecessary but it sets up the main love triangle and the dynamics of the characters and the world they live in. The real action though is in the world of the dead, and the advertising groups were right to focus on this aspect of the film for its marketing campaign.
In terms of the voice acting, I do have to say that Channing Tatum stands out like a sore thumb. Every other human character is portrayed by a Hispanic cast with accents or vocal flairs to match so Tatum’s heavy American accent really cuts into the harmony of the voices. Grey Delisle manages to do so just fine as the elderly sassy grandmother. After all, if you’re going to make a film about Mexico with Mexican characters, shouldn’t they at least sound like they would belong there? That’s not to say he does a bad job, but it just doesn’t fit the film. Zoe Saldana and Diego Luna, on the other hand, fit into their roles like gloves, which is partially what makes their romance so great. Ron Perlman has to be heard to be believed as Xiabalba, and La Muerte finds a blend of rage and kindness through Kate de Castillo’s portrayal.
There are some musical numbers thrown in here or there for effect but I have to say that none of them really blew me away or made me want to pick up the soundtrack. It was a nice touch, to be sure, but definitely not necessary for the final product to be memorable. Thankfully, they use it sparingly. The rest of the music really fits the feel of the movie with heavy Mexican inspirations. Honestly, it’s nice to see a movie that represents Mexico as something else other than a drug cartel state. Sure, the country does have its problems, but it also has a rich culture and folklore that deserves to be explored and shown off to the world for the colorful and vibrant place that it is.
All in all, The Book of Life is an excellent film that deserves to be seen, even if there are a few hiccups in the execution that keep it from being essentially perfect. Still, in a world full of smooth and soft looking characters and environments, provides a welcome and appreciated change to the animated pantheon of films.
– Excellent animation.
– Great voice acting.
– Great story (minus the love triangle).
– Channing Tatum was not a good choice.
– Songs could have been removed.
– Stupid love triangles.